Favourite Writing

Some of my favourite pieces of my writing:

Concerning August Weismann:

The next German to enter the evolutionary scene in a big way in the late 1880s was yet another Professor of Zoology who had originally studied medicine, August Friedrich Leopold Weismann (1834-1914). A keen organ-player in his spare time, with a wife and five children at home, he had spent his working life studying reproductive biology, causing his eyesight to become very poor. But he still hadn’t managed to make his name, so he decided to put his expertise to good use by theorising. He achieved something that most scientists can only dream of, which is to have a proposition accepted, though only after his theoretical justification for making it had been verified by subsequent evidence. In his Germ-plasm Theory, which was effectively a continuation of Cell Theory, he claimed that the germ-plasm, which was what he called the stuff that the nuclei of sperms, eggs and seeds were essentially made from, took a continuous line of descent without being affected by the organisms which it generated (or generated it). In other words, his sperms could not have been tampered with either by him or by any of his ancestors, because all the body cells, including the germ-line cells, were made by successive divisions of the original fertilised egg. The germ-line cells became differentiated during embryology and could not thereafter be affected by the somatic (body) cells. That became known as Weismann’s Barrier – information could flow from fertilised egg to organism, but not vice versa – and, in his view, it made the inheritance of acquired characteristics logically impossible. His children could not possibly inherit his acquired idiosyncrasies. Despite the fact that chemistry was not his strong point, it proved to be a seductive line. Thus it was Weismann, more than any other living person, whose intervention led to the divorce between Lamarckism and Darwinism after Darwin’s death, and the consummation of his proposition would lead to the birth of neo-Darwinism, delivered with the assistance of a midwife called Mendelism. Lamarckism had been cuckolded. [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

Viceman’s grip on the court became so great that he managed to squeeze out the part of Darkwine’s inheritance which was shared with Landmark, thereby precluding any possibility of their ruling together. [From “A Fairy Story”, which is overall one of my favourite pieces of writing]

Concerning Lamarckism and neo-Darwinism (and genes):

Neo-Darwinism is the school of lucky breaks; Lamarckism is the school of accumulating experience; and religion is the school of divine purpose.

Lamarckism is a game of consequences, neo-Darwinism is a game of coincidences. It’s all about supply and demand. In Lamarckism, supply and demand affect each other, whereas, in neo-Darwinism, they happen by chance to coincide.

The most significant of these [Darwin’s predecessors], Lamarck, deserves to be put on a pedestal every bit as high as Darwin’s, not kept hidden under a stool as he always has been.

Though he [Darwin] studied hard, accumulating evidence for his theory, and there were undoubtedly a great many influences upon him, the three main ones seem to have been Lamarck (for his natural progression from simple to complex), Lyell (for his struggle for existence in a gradually changing world) and Blyth (for his tendency to vary and his elimination of all but the fittest for reproduction). [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

The new evolutionary mantra, which had implicitly been “Maximise the number of your children”, became “Maximise the number of your ancestors’ descendants”. A self-effacing man, [William] Hamilton never attempted to popularise his theories, which were full of mathematics, and left it to others to promote them. [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

Your morphology has been largely determined by Lamarckian inheritance whilst your physiology has been largely determined by Darwinian/Mendelian inheritance.

‘Junk’ DNA is the graveyard for genes, not the maternity hospital. [From “The Alternative Life”]

Concerning ostriches:

As a popular science writer, Waddington brought to public attention the issue of the ostrich’s calluses, amongst many many other anatomical features, as being inexplicable by any means other than the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This is a superb example from the inexhaustible supply of circumstantial evidence that has existed since Darwin’s time, and which neo-Darwinists dismiss as inconclusive:- Like many other animals, ostriches have hard patches of skin, or calluses, on those parts of the body which come in contact with the ground when they sit. Since any animal can develop calluses in response to regular contact, there is nothing strange about that, except that ostriches are born with those calluses. So are many other animals. Whether Haeckel’s Recapitulation is involved or not makes no difference to the inescapable, rational conclusion – animals are born with calluses because of the sitting habits of their ancestors. Remember that, if progressive heredity is capable of doing anything, it can do almost everything except perhaps introduce novelty; if the mechanism exists, there is no reason to suppose it isn’t the basic rule of evolution. [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

If you take a group of proto-ostriches which were still able to fly, but didn’t, any individual which incurred a random variation which made it less able to fly would not find that detrimental, but neither would it have any advantage over all the other proto-ostriches, who wouldn’t be punished for still being able to fly, so the random variation would stand no chance of becoming universal to the species. Logically, he [Darwin] could also see that, if disuse diminishes organs, use must develop them. [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

Following a (no doubt, Attenborough-narrated) TV nature programme:

At a certain stage in their identically timed pregnancies, female turtles all get together and go and lay their eggs in the sand just above the highest high water line of a particular beach. On a particular night when the tide is at its highest, all the baby turtles hatch out, burrow out of the sand and dash to the water, where they are immediately able to swim. The reason why they need to dash to the water is because large numbers of predatory birds have accumulated in the area, knowing what was about to happen. Only a small proportion of the baby turtles make it to the relative safety of the water. This is not survival of the fittest; it is survival of the luckiest. If any baby turtles were unfit, and either dawdled or went in the wrong direction, they would be more likely to be doomed, so that constitutes negative natural selection, but for all those that do what they are supposed to do, it is luck alone which determines whether they survive or not. However, my main carp is over the idea that all these instincts, on the parts of the adult turtles, the baby turtles and the birds, complete with immaculate timing, are due to genes, which are only known to be coded determinants of protein molecules.

From emails to Mike Sutton: (2018-2020)

Darwin merely cobbled together the ideas of three French scientists (Lamarck, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Augustin de Candolle), a German geologist (von Buch) and an amateur English ornithologist (Blyth). Those are the Famous Five influencers, and if you and Roy Davies respectively want to add Matthew and Wallace to make the Secret Seven, then that is your choice. I prefer the Famous Five.

Personally, I think that when he [Darwin] came across Matthew, he probably thought “Oh shit. There goes my dream of originality. He’s probably writing a book about it. In case he isn’t, I guess all I can do is write a long essay, to be published in the event of my death, and study barnacles.” You say somewhere that, without Matthew, The Origin of Species would never have been written. I would maintain that, without Matthew, The Origin of Species or its essence might have been published sooner.

I would say that you need to persuade Dawkins (or person of similar stature) of the veracity of your claims, and the way to do that is not to make Darwin out to be a villain, but rather to portray him as a tortured, flawed human being, whose dreams of recognised originality outweighed his integrity. That’s just my opinion, as someone who had a Quaker upbringing. It may be that your approach of deliberately winding Darwinists up in the hope that they break down will ultimately be successful.

The main thing I take from it [the Matthew case] is that the ‘Rules of Priority’ were (and probably still are) wrong. The problem seems to stem from the fact that people, being people, are more interested in people than in ideas. Though the people who thought up ideas and coined words or expressions are undoubtedly of anecdotal interest to the history of science, I do not think they are of any relevance to the actual science itself. You mention the issue of Mendel, and I long ago came to the conclusion that, though as a monk and later Abbot he is obviously of anecdotal interest, he had only enunciated the principle of particulate inheritance and is not really worthy of the title of ‘father of genetics’ or having an -ism named after him. He merely made some observations and published them.

Following Dempster and Wainwright, your top priority seems to be to have history re-written so that Matthew is universally acknowledged as the originator of ‘evolution by natural selection’. According to the absurd ‘Rules of Priority’, that may be technically correct, but there seems to be some confusion over what the priority actually is. It can’t be the use of the words ‘natural selection’, because that would make a nonsense of the ‘Linnean debacle’, since Wallace never used the words. Besides, as you point out, Corbaux had got there earlier than Matthew, and in a vaguely biological context. So, it would have to be about the idea, in which case you would have to ask how thoroughly an idea has to be investigated in order to count as worthy of ‘priority’. Maupertuis and Lamarck could both be claimed to have had the germ of the idea that survival was of importance in transformism, and de Candolle had certainly got the importance of competition. Matthew was in Paris when Lamarck, de Candolle and Geoffroy were all still working at the Museum of Natural History. He himself was undoubtedly a plagiarist. You are in danger of deifying Matthew in the same way as Darwinists deify Darwin.

I long ago came to the conclusion that, if any particular person has to be identified with an idea or theory, it should be the person who succeeds in bringing it to public attention (which is why I took the view given above about Mendel) and acceptance. Genetics is just genetics, and not even de Vries, who devoted his life’s work to it, could claim to have become sufficiently well-known to have it named after him.

In response to his father’s famous taunt, Darwin merely wished to ‘amount to something’, which meant being admired for being an original thinker. His denial of influences and predecessors was deplorable but hardly reprehensible, since everyone did it (and probably still do), including Lamarck, Matthew and Chambers. With regard to Matthew, Darwin just got caught up in a web of lies, but that does not make him a criminal. Where I think your approach is wrong is that you try to make Darwin out to be a villain rather than a flawed, ambitious human being. Personally, I do not like black and white characterisations of heroes and villains. While I would happily (for several reasons) see Darwin losing his hero status, it is not in order to turn him into a villain, and certainly not in order to have him replaced by any other potentially-dubious character.

I’ve just read a review of P.J.Bowler’s “Darwin deleted”, which I notice you cite in the bibliography of “Nullius…” Asking myself the question that Bowler asks – what would have happened if Darwin had drowned on the Beagle? – my speedy answer is this:

Grant and Matthew would both have died without coming to public attention, or even the attention of many scientists, and Chambers would have gone no further than he did in paving the way. There is no reason why Wallace wouldn’t have come up with his Ternate paper, whether or not it was influenced by Matthew, but it would have gone unnoticed and he would have been a hopelessly unconvincing and inconsistent promoter of the idea anyway. The only Brit who might have come to public attention, if he could have made his use of language more accessible, was Spencer. Therefore I come to the conclusion it would have been the Germans, Haeckel and/or Weismann, who would have made evolution theory acceptable (at least in Germany). Though they both claimed to have been inspired by Darwin, they were both on the trail and both were determined to pursue it, though they would each have taken evolution theory in different directions. I don’t imagine the Brits would have taken kindly to either. The Brits would probably still be die-hard creationists, like many Americans are.

That’s why I am grateful that it was Darwin, however duplicitous he may have been, who taught the world to believe in evolution theory.

Concerning plagiarism:

Darwin was influenced by a great many people, and that in itself is no cause for shame. As Wilson Mizner famously said (which was repeated by Tom Stoppard in his play, Professional Foul), “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” It is perfectly legitimate to use the content of published articles, and even private letters, in the development of one’s own views. That, after all, is why people write academic articles – in order to persuade other people of their points of view. Darwin’s main shame lay in his reluctance to acknowledge influences. [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”] See also a separate 2022 essay on Plagiarism.

Concerning human evolution:

[Before 1967] There were two Southern Ape sisters, called Gracile and Robust, living in Africa. Gracile gave birth to a Handyman who grew up to become an Upright Man. He travelled all over the Old World, first to Asia, and then much later to Europe, where his brutish behaviour earned him the name Neanderthal. Then, back in Africa somewhat later, he became a Wise Man and travelled all over the Old World again, dispelling his former reputations, and then on to Australia and America. [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

What Elaine Morgan did succeed in doing was to debunk the myth of Man the Mighty Hunter, which had previously been popular amongst male anthropologists. They had a vision of our male ancestors making spears and running across the African plains with them at the ready in pursuit of ruminants, and then bringing home their quarry and being appropriately rewarded by their grateful, sexy, naked womenfolk. [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

Erectus was the first naked, post-aquatic ape. Furthermore, I believe that her chromosomes were essentially the same as those of homo sapiens and that she would have been able to breed with homo sapiens, as would Neanderthal woman. The spread of homo sapiens across the globe resulted in extensive interbreeding with the members of homo erectus from the first spread. [From “The Alternative Life”]

In other words, it is not so much the case that we shave because we grow beards as that we grow beards because our ancestors shaved. [From “The Alternative Life”]

Part of the reason for that [dismissal of Louis Bolk’s human neoteny theory] may have been that human beings were only just getting used to the idea of their ape ancestry, and to be described as immature apes was going too far. [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

Their [molecular anthropologists’] first public success was the revelation in 1987 that all human beings that are alive today are descended from a woman who lived in Africa approximately 150 thousand years ago, who has been called mitochondrial Eve or sometimes Super Eve. They never claimed she was the last common ancestor (who would undoubtedly have come later), nor that she was the sole human being at the time (though there probably weren’t many homo sapiens then), but that she was the last traceable common ancestor. Mitochondrial Eve was always a logical necessity, as is the fact that she had (at least) two daughters, though the recency of her timing was unexpected. Furthermore, her specific identity (the actual person who fulfilled her designation) could have changed over the centuries, becoming more recent as her most distantly-related descendants, whose lineages split off earliest, died. Alternatively, if a human being was discovered to have mitochondrial DNA which is radically different from all samples analysed so far, mitochondrial Eve could age considerably, possibly by a million years. [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

Concerning Creationism, ID and Vitalism:

Yes, young-earth creationism is clearly preposterous, especially if you imagine the creator to be an old man in a robe, with a large white beard, working like Frankenstein in a heavenly laboratory. But if you expand the time frames in line with geological evidence and consider the creator to be some kind of spirit, like life in fact, getting down among the molecules, then it is not so ridiculous. [From a Letter. See also “Creationism”]

What the Intelligent Design school want is sensible debate (with which desire I can sympathise), and they do not deserve the contemptuous dismissal they have received from most scientists. [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

That [the fact that almost all chemistry in cells is now understood] leads me to wonder what would have constituted evidence for Vitalism: impossible chemistry? [From “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck”]

Concerning Solipsism:

Which is easier – creating a consciousness which is deluded into believing it has a material existence as a living organism on a material planet in a material universe, or creating a similar consciousness and a material universe?

If you’re interested in the concept of solipsism, see my radio play “A Conversation with God